Films

The Lost City of Z

I first heard about Percy Fawcett back in the late eighties when a friend told me about him. We’d both read Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo detailing his trip with James Fenton, and I think that In Trouble Again, in which O’Hanlon heads into Amazonia, had just come out. Indeed extracts may have been published in Granta which I certainly read at the time.

Fawcett, as described to me by my friend, sounded like a remarkable chap, spending years exploring the jungle, coming across all manner of travails, from dangerous beasts both great and small, to wild local Indian tribes and an inhospitable terrain.

I made a mental note to track down the book he’d written, Exploration Fawcett, and a few years later I came across a copy published in the Century Traveller imprint with an introduction by Robin Hanbury-Tenison. But the book looked like it may be heavy going, and despite my interest, it was always on my, “I must get around to reading that…” list.

In 2009 I heard about David Grann’s book, The Lost City of Z, seeing him interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. While it’s clear that there has been much literature – indeed an entire industry – about Fawcett over the years, this was perhaps the most mainstream title to date. I picked up a copy.

But I still wanted to read Fawcett’s own book (actually edited by his son Brian) first. So Gann’s title too joined the book pile.

In due course I heard that James Gray was making a film of the book. From time to time you’d hear a little more about it until finally its release was imminent. And so, nearly thirty years after I’d first heard about Fawcett, I read Exploration Fawcett.

It’s a fascinating story detailing briefly Fawcett’s early life in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Ireland as a British Army officer, before he was chosen to carry out some work for the Royal Geographical Society, delineating the borders of Bolivia and Brazil. At the time there was a “gold rush” in rubber production deep in the forests of the Amazon, and knowing which country you were in was suddenly important.

Fawcett’s book begins with some detailed stories he’d picked up over the years, relating to stories that the first Europeans heard about mystical cities of gold. Although the book then leaves these behind, it’s always clear that they remain in the background of Fawcett’s thoughts, as his ideas about the Amazon’s native tribes change into something less Victorian. They are not necessarily “savages”.

Fawcett went on a number of expeditions over a period of nearly 20 years, funding them in different ways, and Exploration Fawcett has a useful map (curiously, neither Gann’s book, nor the film including any maps, which is a shame because they’re really helpful). It’s clear that this part of the world was a real wild west in those early years of the twentieth century, with all sorts of individuals and groups making a fortune from the “black gold” that was rubber. This was the money that ended up building a remarkable opera house in Manaus, the Brazilian city within the Amazon rainforest. Marble was transported from Italy and the building of it must have been a gargantuan task. In due course, rubber trees were grown in Asia, and the bottom dropped out of the market, meaning an end to the rubber economy deep in the inhospitable Amazon.

It is always remarkable that no matter how deep into the jungle, Fawcett was always running into random Europeans who were trading in rubber or otherwise just existing in this remote part of the world. Eveyln Waugh would pick on precisely this, for his novel A Handful of Dust, his protagonist Tony Last becoming a virtual prisoner of Mr Todd, deep in the jungle, where he’s forced to read Dickens novels out loud!

Waugh aside, Fawcett would have quite an impact on popular culture of the time. He knew Conan Doyle, and claims with some justification that The Lost World was based on some plateaus that Fawcett had himself reported seeing. He also knew H Rider Haggard, author of the Quartermain and She novels.

The outbreak of World War I meant that Fawcett had to return to Britain, and onwards to France where he served with bravery throughout the war. Notably he was there are the Somme where so many lost their lives. Like so many others, the war left him a changed man.

Now money for expeditions was harder to come by, and Fawcett felt almost imprisoned living back in Britain. He would eventually move his family to Jamaica, while he returned to Brazil to raise more funds.

Finally, he raised money in the US from a consortium of newspapers and a Rockefeller, allowing him to return to the jungle for the expedition he really wanted to do – and find the city he had named only “Z”.

David Gann’s book essentially retells the story that Fawcett’s younger son Brian had previously edited together in Exploration Fawcett, but adds lots of colour and context. In particular, Fawcett could be very damning of people he didn’t get on with, and Gann is able to fill out those parts of the story. I’m not even sure that Fawcett mentioned his wife by name in his book, while a particularly despised person is simply called the “botanist.”

There’s also the wider picture of what else was happening at the time. In 1911, the American Hiram Bingham discovered (or at least was shown) Machu Picchu, proving that there were indeed still undiscovered cities in South America. And another American, Alexander Rice, was able to lead enormously well funded expeditions into the Amazon, taking shortwave radios and even a plane with him. While Fawcett might not have approved of those methods, taking vast numbers into the rainforest, sometimes leading to massive losses of life, he was probably a bit jealous too.

“Amateur” explorers like Fawcett were slowly becoming a thing of the past, as professionals with anthropologists and archaeologists becoming more important.

Reading Fawcett’s own account, you couldn’t help thinking of his wife, at home bringing up his children, and not seeing her husband for years at a time. Gann tells us that she did a lot of marketing for him, keeping his fame alive.

Which all brings us to the film of The Lost City of Z.

While Gann’s book is retelling of Fawcett’s life, it also details Gann’s own trip to the Amazon. But the film is very much a period dramatisation of his life, with Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett. We open in Ireland where Fawcett is generally frustrated at life in the army, at a time when “getting on” was still very dependent upon your family. Sienna Miller plays Nina, his wife, with his first child already on the scene.

He wins a position mapping the Bolivian/Brazilian border and brings with him across the Atlantic, a man he has recruited via a newspaper advertisement – Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson). They travel to South America, and begin their surveying work amidst a beautiful landscape, Colombia doubling as the various Amazonian jungles.

Guided by some jungle finds, and stories he’s told, Fawcett begins to develop his theory of a civilisation that was far more advanced, and much less primitive than was widely thought at the time. His party is always small, and the jungle vicious with men dying along the way.

Writer and director James Foley does not present a glamourous Amazonian adventure – you can feel the sweat, the heat, and and most of all, the insects. There are perils to be had everywhere, although while everyone else was suffering, Fawcett seems to have had a fairly charmed existence, never coming down with anything major.

The film details three of his expeditions, although in reality there were seven. But there is only so much that you can fit into a two hour film. Foley does take liberties with the story, Costin becoming a constant companion when in fact, different people travelled with Fawcett at different times.

For story purposes, it’s perhaps understandable that Raleigh Rimell, best friend of Fawcett’s son Jack, was excluded from the story, but I think it’s an omission too far. Only three of them went on that final expedition, and while the father/son relationship is one of the arcs of the film, it’s over-simplification, and Rimell should have been included.

There’s a great turn by Angus Macfadyen as James Murray – the “botanist.” He almost causes catastrophe when he refuses to do as Fawcett says, and becomes a serious drain on resources.

And the standout sequence, is that in which Fawcett’s party come under fire from the arrows of an Amazonian tribe, with Fawcett refusing to return fire with their guns – instead using an accordion as part of his peace process! This is all as he recorded it in his book.

While overall I thought the film told the story superbly, sometimes it felt to me that for filmic purposes exaggeration had to be made. The relationship of Fawcett with, in particular, his oldest son Jack never quite rang true to me in the film. And while his wife must have been long suffering, their relationship in the film just feels slightly off.

Perhaps the sequences I got on with the least were those back in London, where the members of the Royal Geographic Society were almost caricatures of a certain type of disbelieving Victorian gentleman. While Fawcett wasn’t altogether believed, he was well supported by the RGS over the years, and this was indeed a time of remarkable exploits. All their gruff behaviour just felt over-egged.

I said at the start, that my copy of Exploration Fawcett had an introduction by Robin Hanbury-Tenison. While he clearly admires Fawcett greatly, he does admonish him for being a teller of tall tales at times. For example, Fawcett relates killing an anaconda that was 60 feet in length, yet the largest anacondas regularly grow to around 17 feet, with the largest ever seen being 33 feet. That would make Fawcett’s twice as large again!

Fawcett also regularly regaled readers with tales he’d heard told by others, when in truth he couldn’t really verify them.

And Fawcett had some serious fantasies about Atlantis, as well as spiritualism, the latter indeed being popular at the time. No less a figure as Arthur Conan Doyle himself was a believer.

Gann’s book never addresses the idea that Fawcett may have exaggerated a little, and neither then, does Gray’s film. That shouldn’t undermine what Fawcett clearly did do, but sometimes the stories do need tempering.

The Lost City of Z was shot on film, and you can tell. The colour pallette of this film is not overly saturated, and while the Amazon is green, it doesn’t glow orange or “pop” in the way so many would grade their image to look. It’s a more washed out tone, that’s in keeping with the grime and dirt of an expedition.

It’s an absolutely fascinating tale, of someone I think relatively few really know about. There’s a through-line from Fawcett’s life, to the adventure novels of Conan Doyle and Haggard, which in turn lead to action heroes like Indiana Jones. We’re more familiar with Scott, Stanley, Livingstone and Shackleton. It’s definitely time for Fawcett’s moment in the spotlight. This is a film that’s really well worth seeing.

Future Shock: The Story of 2000AD

The comic, 2000AD, was launched in 1977 when I was 7 years old. While I read a fair few comics when I was young, I can’t say that I was reading 2000AD from the very start. It was more about The Beano at that time, which I’d begin to buy with my pocket money on a semi-regular basis. I remember that the 1978 Beano Book was the first of their annuals that I owned. It would become very well thumbed, as would be the Summer Specials. Otherwise it might occasionally be the Dandy, or perhaps Whizzer & Chips.

As I got a little older, I progressed to Warlord. Quite why a comic full of Second World War stories was relatively popular in the late seventies isn’t entirely obvious to me now. But as kids we’d eat up Bank Holiday screenings of films like The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare and The Great Escape. At primary school we’d re-enact scenes from these films, throwing dirt around to create dust cloud “explosions.”

(Warlord, Wikipedia tells me, lasted all the way through until 1986. But perhaps more staggering is the ongoing publication of its DC Thomson stablemate Commando. These comics, in compact form, continue tell tales of derring-do from the second war, each book having a self-contained story.

While I understand that there’s a certain kitsch appeal, which was probably why some compilation books were published a few years ago, and could be seen in Waterstones up and down the country, I can only think that it’s readership now is fairly elderly. It reminds me that Bauer Media had to close down a magazine called Der Landser while it was completing the purchase of Absolute Radio in 2013. That magazine seemed to be aimed at an elderly audience who were proud of their military heritage, but were not – the publisher argued – Nazi sympathisers.

As of 2013, Commando was still selling nearly 10,000 copies a month.

And today DC Thomson is still publishing 4 issues a fortnight, and you can get digital downloads too!)

But back to 2000AD. I’d probably read a few copies of it here and there. My brother had started reading the relaunched Eagle. But sometime around 1984 I started to get into a bit more purposefully. I know it was around this time because the second part of a fantastic story – The Ballad of Halo Jones – was just starting to be published.

I’d missed part one, so I started to hunt it out. I made my first visits to Forbidden Planet, which was then hidden away off Denmark Street.

I started to catch up on Judge Dredd too. Because some of the older Dredd stories were being republished in US editions, I was picking up some of those and reading up on key stories like The Cursed Earth, the Judge Child, and The Apocalypse War. I queued to get a copy of the first compilation of Halo Jones stories signed by writer Alan Moore and artist Ian Gibson, and I had a Halo Jones T-shirt.

By now I was buying plastic bags to put my comics in, because I knew that was the way that you needed to keep your comics pristine.

In the wider realm, I was playing role playing games with my friends, and I bought a copy of the Judge Dredd roleplaying game. You could buy metal figures (I note from my nephew’s models, that today it’s more likely that you’ll be painting plastic). I fashioned polystyrene boxes, found around the back of the local Currys and Laskys, into a section of Mega-City One. I bought the ZX Spectrum Judge Dredd game – although I don’t remember it as being any good.

2000AD got me into comics.

I was more of a British comic reader than anything. But I was aware that changes were afoot. I started to pick up copies of Swamp Thing because I knew Alan Moore was writing it. Then came things like The Dark Knight Returns, Hellblazer and Watchmen. I started to learn who Neil Gaiman was, and would look for Vertigo titles. It was a good time for comics. Forbidden Planet had moved to larger premises and I was visiting it and other comic shops in London more frequently.

My comic habit only really slowed down when I reached university. With less access to comics, and plenty of other things to do, it took a back seat. From then on I became an occasional comic reader – always wanting to know what was happening and who were the big names. But the choice was vast.

And that about sums up my comic reading today. I’ll pick up a graphic novel now and again, or a short run series. I still enjoy a wander around Forbidden Planet (still in roughly the same part of London, but in much bigger premises at the top of Shaftesbury Avenue). And I’m pleased to see that 2000AD still survives even though I’ve not read a copy for quite a while.

This is all a very long introduction to the fact that I’ve recently watched Future Shock: The Story of 2000AD. I’d known that this was coming since over the past 18 months or more, I’ve had a steady stream of emails alerting me to the various interviews that the producers had been carrying out. They really had trawled wide and deep for this definitive history of the comic.

I knew a little of the fact that Action comic had preceded it, and had ended up being shut down after it had created a scandal, but beyond that my knowledge came from years of reading the comic on and off. The documentary details how the comic was created and the lack of support they had from the publishers almost from the start, since this was doing things that other comics weren’t.

In many respects it changed the mold of British comics. Aside from the smart way it could talk to both a younger audience by giving them action and explosions, it also held an older audience with wry takes on the politics of the day. The documentary pretty accurately reflects that.

Some of the stories in the documentary, I vaguely knew. It was certainly unusual that 2000AD credited its writers and artists. But as the film shows, this did mean that the top talent could be poached relatively easily – especially when DC Comics came calling, literally setting up shop in a hotel suite and inviting everyone to come along to them. Of course those same people then led the US comic invasion that completely shook up US comics at the time.

Then there was the fact that lack of intellectual property began to become a much bigger issue. The single most painful part of the film for me was when Neil Gaiman related how Alan Moore had explained to him where future Halo Jones would take the series. The character’s entire life. But he didn’t own the rights – he’d signed these over to IPC (at the time) and if anyone profited from the characters it was the publishers. Moore, of course, had lots of run-ins with comic publishers, notably including DC Comics from whom he refuses to even cash cheques for films like V for Vendetta and Watchmen, when they got made into films. Interestingly, it’s not totally clear that even today, if you create a new story for 2000AD, that they don’t own the rights. More than one contributor said that they hold back their best stuff for a publisher like Image who will let them keep more ownership.

Alan Moore, incidentally, is probably the main person missing from the film which is a shame as he’s such an entertaining character. But this is a film about Pat Mills really – he holds the entire structure of the piece together having been there at the very start, and still contributing to this day.

If there’s one part of the story which is covered – although glossed over quite quickly – it was the late nineties. I’d certainly lost track of the comic at that time, but there seemed to have been an attempt to replicate “lads mags” in comic form. The film is fairly honest about this period, including significant contributions from then editor Dave Bishop, who was not universally liked.

In 2000, the title was sold by its then owners Fleetway, to Rebellion. Primarily a video games developer, they are portrayed – probably quite fairly – as the first owner of the title who really understood what it stood for. It certainly seems to have prospered in that time, and current editor Matt Smith has been editing the title since 2002 – a remarkable period of stability.

The documentary shows how the title continues to develop new writers. Indeed it makes the very valid point that aside from 2000AD, every other comic on UK bookshelves today are franchises meaning that there’s no room left for original characters.

Perhaps the one part of story that seems to be missing from the documentary is the effect it had on the wider comic scene in the UK. There was a period where other titles like Deadline (home of Tank Girl), Crisis and Revolver were being published. While none of these lasted that long, many of the same writers could found working for these titles too. It was an exciting period for British comics.

Overall the documentary really is very good and very even handed. It’s not all wonderful, and it leaves you thinking that perhaps some of the participants aren’t so enamoured of some of the other ones. But the film makes a strong case for 2000AD having strongly influenced vast swathes of what’s come since, up to and including the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

And I came away thinking, I really do need to pick up a few recent copies of 2000AD as the comic reaches its 40th anniversary in 2017.

And if you’ve never read it, then I do recommend picking up a copy of The Ballad of Halo Jones, either in print or digitally. If you’ve ever been intrigued by the favicon I use for this site, it’ll at least explain my “inspiration.”

High Rise

Brunswick

I didn’t think about it until during the film, but could there be any more appropriate location to watch High Rise than the Curzon Bloomsbury (née Renoir cinema) in the Brunswick Centre?

In Ben Wheatley’s superb adaptation of JG Ballard’s novel, his production designer Mark Tildesley has created a modernist* marvel of building. The way that the apartments are tiered in the film is very reminiscent of the much lower Brunswick Centre has tiering for its apartments, all in that same modernist style. The Brunswick Centre was designed by Patrick Hodgkinson who died very recently, and for who the centre was his most famous piece of work, long in gestation before finally opening in the ’70s and getting a revamp in the ’00s.

Recently the below-ground Renoir cinema has been modernised and overhauled, becoming the Curzon Bloomsbury. Although the cinema reopened a year ago, this was the first time I’d been back inside. The main reason for holding off was that the previous cinema had featured two screens, but following the 10 month refurbishment, it now features six screens. It does not take a genius to work out that all the screens are therefore now smaller than they were before, and when I see a film on the big screen, I tend to like that screen to be, well, big!

That’s not to say that the cinema was especially good in its old format. It was originally designed as a single 490 seat screen at the time of the centre’s opening in 1972, but as with so many cinemas in the 1980s, it was converted to become a two-screen cinema – essentially splitting the cinema down the middle. That left each of the two neighbouring screens uneven, with more seats on one side than the other. There were also pillars that you obviously couldn’t sit behind.

Now under its new name, it features six screens, of which only the “Premium Screen” is of a decent size with 177 seats. The other regular screens all seat between 28 and 30, making them feel a little closer to a hi-fi dealership’s screening room rather than a full blown cinema. They’re certainly plushly appointed and the chain has named the screens after now re-branded or closed cinemas from around London (Lumiere, Plaza, Phoenix and Minema). The Bertha Dochouse screen is actually larger at 55 seats. It’s a screen devoted documentaries and supported by a number of groups.

I saw High Rise in the 30 seat “Plaza” screen, and while I have no problems with the cinema itself – aside from a couple of late patrons casting shadows on half the screen as they spent too long finding their seats (another consequence of small screening rooms), I do wonder why I’m paying a premium to see a film on the big screen if home cinema screens are getting close to the same size. I exaggerate a little, but it’s an issue of mine. The seats are comfortable, and there are bars throughout, but paying £15 plus a £1 booking fee for such a small screen experience is galling.

But what about the film?

Well it’s really excellent. If you don’t like JG Ballard, then it won’t be your cup of tea, because this one of his dystopian future novels, in a believable future from around the time they were published. High Rise came out in 1975, and begins with Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moving into his new apartment mid-way up a brand new apartment block. For him and his fellow aspirant middle-class tenants in the block, this is a self-contained world. They have their own supermarket, a gym and a swimming pool.

But there’s a very rigid hierarchy, within the block. The higher up in the building you are, the greater your social standing. On the very top, in the penthouse, is the project’s architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons).

As Laing settles in, the high rise takes on a life of its own with an endless stream of parties to which you may or may not be invited. Laing befriends Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and her son who live just above him. But below him are Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his heavily pregnant wife Helen (Elizabeth Moss). Wilder is something of playboy, his wife seemingly acquiescent.

Higher up are people like the gynaecologist Pangbourne (James Purefoy), an actrees Ann Sheridan (Sienna Guillory) and Royal’s wife Ann (Keeley Hawes) who manages to keep a sheep and a horse on the top of the building.

Slowly and surely chaos begins to ensue as rubbish chutes are jammed, power-cuts hit the lower floors, and finally there is no water. Raiding parties look out for their own areas, yet there’s still a weird normality as some continue to head out of the building each day, walking out across the enormous car park to head off to their jobs.

The chaos gets worse, and there are assaults and all manner of debauchery. Yet somehow the building contains all of this. There’s an amusing sequence when a police car pulls up and Royal assures the policeman (a cameo from Neil Maskell who previously appeared in Wheatley’s Kill List) that everything’s fine. Revolt is in the air, and it’s uncertain how things will play out. The script is both very much in keeping with Ballard’s novel, whilst not afraid to diverge from it. Invariably there is a lot of compression, and fewer characters on fewer floors. And the timeframe seems compressed compared with the novel.

The performances are all excellent with Hiddleston almost gliding through the film, as Laing does in the book. Irons is right the grumpy architect who sort of knows his designed society is all collapsing around him. It’s fun seeing Hawes in yet another very different role – she’s currently very different in both the third series of Line of Fire, and as the mother in ITV’s new version of The Durrells.

You can’t separate the film from the superb production design. As well as the amazing architecture conjured up in CG, there interiors are beautifully delivered. I especially enjoyed seeing the supermarket with all the carefully labelled products (There’s an excellent article in Creative Review detailing this work) and signs.

And Clint Mansell’s soundtrack is also incredibly important, adding layers to the film. Beyond that there is incidental music such as muzack version of Abba’s SOS, later reprised into a fully-fledged song from Portishead. Sadly, it’s not included on the soundtrack, and the band prefers that you hear the song in the context of the film.

Finally, you can’t ignore Amy Jump, Wheatley’s partner in crime. The film credits her equally at the end, her writing, and he directing – the pair of them editing. The film is very truthful to the book, but Ballard is not the easiest author to adapt – there’s a sensibility to his work.

I loved this film, and can’t wait to watch it again and soak up some of the details.

* Or should that be brutalist? I’m afraid architectural doctrines are a little beyond me.

London in B&W-14

Hail Caesar!

A new Coen brothers film is always a cause for celebration. That’s particularly the case when they adopt more of a screwball tone to their films.

Hail Caesar! is actually more of a group of sketches than a fully fledged film – the plot is slight. We follow the action from the perspective of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), actually a real person who was a “fixer” for MGM. Here he’s the fixer at the fictional Capitol Studios, and is called upon to sort out problems with the various stars Capitol has on contract. These include Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) who has got himself kidnapped from the set of his biblical epic, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) who’s trying to overcome an out of wedlock pregnancy while shooting her Esther Williams-style swimming picture, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) who’s trying to break beyond the confines of his singing cowboy persona and Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) who’s making a song and dance naval number!

How the whole story stitches together doesn’t really matter. This film is all about the set pieces. In the cinema where I saw the film, the biggest laughs came from Ehrenreich’s appearances as Hobie. There’s a wonderful scene played with gusto by Ralph Fiennes’ Laurence Laurentz where Hobie is trying to transition to a melodrama but can’t lose his western twang. Later the scene is revisited via a cameo from Frances McDormand who’s editing the picture.

Meanwhile Tilda Swinton plays a twin role as gossip columnists for rival publications in the style of Hedda Hopper, last seen, of course, played by Helen Mirren in Trumbo with the same types of hats, but a very different tone of voice. In fact, the comparisons with Trumbo don’t end there, because the writers who form the group that kidnaps Whitlock, seem to be closely related to the Hollywood Ten. And there was an interesting interview with the Joel and Ethan Coen on Radio 4’s Film Programme last week which suggested that the left-leaning writers of the age really were smuggling in communist propaganda into their work.

While faith becomes a key theme of the film, for the most part the film is more of an excuse to have some fun. And for all the control that studios had when the studio system reigned supreme, the breadth of output must have been remarkable.

This isn’t the best Coen brothers film ever – you feel it could have been structured a little stronger in places. On the other hand, the characters are delightful, and the gentle mocking of the studio productions of the time is wonderful.

Now where can I get the eagle sound effect everytime someone mentions the mysterious events surrounding the movie “On Wings of Eagles”? (Stay until the end of the credits if you enjoy this gag).

Trumbo

I’m fascinated about the period of the Hollywood Blacklist – that post-war period, as the Cold War was getting under-way, when virulent anti-communists including Senator Joseph McCarthy started “investigating” perceived pro-Soviet beliefs and output in Hollywood.

Before I went to see Trumbo, I thought I’d watch Fellow Traveller, a 1990 film made by the BBC and HBO. Written by Michael Eaton and directed by Philip Saville, it received a short cinema release in the UK before showing up in the Sunday night Screen Two slot in early 1991. The film did get a VHS release, but as far as I’m aware, it had a single outing on BBC Two and that’s been it.

More to the point, aside from that VHS release, there’s no way to get hold of the film today. I resorted to digging out my old VHS off-air recording and digitising that to enable me to see it. None of my kit is in perfect order, so it’s not exactly a pristine transfer, but it’s watchable.

[For what it’s worth, this is the sort of thing that it would be good for BBC Store to stock. It’s a little off-beat, I grant you, but otherwise the tape is just gathering dust in an archive somewhere.]

As for the film? Well it’s an interesting story of a Hollywood writer Asa Kaufman (Ron Silver) running away from the McCarthy witch-hunt, escaping to London where he needs to take on a false name to get work. ITV is just getting off the ground, and new companies are being set-up, so he becomes scriptwriter on The Adventure of Robin Hood. Meanwhile in Hollywood, movie star Clifford Byrne (Hart Bochner) shoots himself.

The film flashes back to Kaufman’s time in Hollywood with his friend Byrne, and their friends and family, first during the war when they’re raising funds, and later as witch-hunt gets under way. Imogen Stubbs plays Sarah Atchison, once Byrne’s girlfriend, but now back in a deprived post-war London.

The structure of the film is a little off, with the multiple flashbacks meaning that the film jumps around a lot. We even get imagined sequences from the Robin Hood series, with some deliberately heavy-handed dialogue reflecting real-world events. And the music can be a little overbearing at times, with the same theme used repeatedly.

But overall, the film absolutely bore re-watching, and the story, while fictionalised, is true. The ATV version of Robin Hood was written by a number of blacklisted US screenwriters – there’s a good 2006 Guardian piece explaining this, and noting:

There was also another, more direct threat to the anonymity of potential scriptwriters: betrayal. After the blacklist collapsed in the mid-1960s, [Ring Lardner Jr, one of the Hollywood Ten] explained that a TV show about an outlaw who takes from the rich to give to the poor provided him “with plenty of opportunities to comment on issues and institutions in Eisenhower-era America”. But Steve Neale of Exeter University, who has uncovered the names of exactly who wrote which of the Robin Hood episodes, points out that within the scripts’ emphasis on redistribution of wealth there is “a theme that recurs in the first two series: the probability that Robin Hood or one of the outlaws will be betrayed”.

But what about Trumbo?

Trumbo tells the story of Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston). Like many others in Hollywood, he had been left-leaning during the pre-war and war period, and had indeed joined the Communist Party of America. The coming of the cold war led to hysteria in the US and further afield – there might be “reds under the beds” everywhere. And so there’s the suspicion that Hollywood might be spreading sympathetic communist views via popular films.

As hard to believe as that might seem to be sitting here in the twenty-first century, that fear was stoked heavily by the likes of popular Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, headed by John Wayne (David James Elliot).

And so, Trumbo becomes one of ten screenwriters – the Hollywood 10 – subpoenaed to testify in congress about communist propaganda. Trumbo faces up to the challenge with equanimity and with the support of his family led by wife Cleo (Diane Lane), he goes and treats the committee with the disdain it deserves and in a humbled manner. Yet the death of a Supreme Court judge means that he ends up serving an eleven month prison term.

In the meantime, one some of his friends and colleagues are finding it difficult to support Trumbo and some of the other writers. Notably Edward G Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) ends up naming names to protect his career – he’d not worked for a year at that point. ]

The blacklisting is biting at this point. Trumbo’s friend Arlen Hird (Louis CK) is one of several people really feeling the financial pain. And so Trumbo starts to lead a group of writers who will produce scripts, anonymously, for Frank King (John Goodman) – the producer of cheap and lurid pictures. Trumbo would go on to win Oscars under pseudonyms for both Roman Holiday and The Brave One.

Only by 1960, when Trumbo was at first secretly writing Spartacus for Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and Exodus for Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel), did his name get made public, and despite the best efforts of protesters.

It’s a terrible period of America and Hollywood’s history, and this film tells the story really well. Trumbo isn’t painted as some kind of a saint. He was difficult to live with, often writing propped up in the bath, and at times having to churn out so many screenplays that he had time for nothing else. He was a champagne socialist, living in some luxury until the time of his prison sentence. And he wasn’t always a good friend. But he stayed true to his causes.

The film is really good, and the acting is excellent – particularly Cranston. This is clearly a superior film to Fellow Traveller, but they do make an interesting pair to see together.

Although the film details activities in Hollywood between the forties and sixties, it’s actually incredibly relevant today. Most overtly, the death of a Supreme Court judge having a substantive impact on his life. It’s incredible that US politics is so caught up in the judicial system that the highest court in the land is largely defined by the political beliefs of its members. Today we have a court with eight judges split evenly between Republican and Democrat, and a determination from Republicans to block any member nominated in the next 12 months while Obama is still president.

And then there’s the “reds under the beds” fear that means some call for anything to go. Today it’s not communism, but terrorism. I find some interesting parallels in the case Apple is fighting with the FBI over encryption and iPhones. Apple is suddenly the bad guy because Tim Cook believes in the right to privacy – something which strong encryption provides users with. Many governments, including our own, want some kind of “backdoor” into devices to allow law enforcement to get into these devices. If we don’t then the terrorists somehow win!

There’s more to write on encryption, but I think that there are definitely parallels to be drawn. In the fifties and sixties it was fear of communism. Early in the 21st century it’s fear of terrorism. There’s may be and have been legitimate threats from both. But do we give up our ideals and ways of life – our own liberties – to fight these threats? Or do we “win” by showing that we can be bigger and better?

Spotlight

Spotlight tells they story of the Boston Globe investigate journalism unit – called “Spotlight” – who investigated the long-term cover-up of child abuse by a significant number of priests within the Catholic Church in Boston beginning in 2001.

The film is based very much on the Spotlight team in the newspaper itself, and details how the arrival of a new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) kick-started an investigation into something that was bubbling under but hadn’t truly been properly investigated.

The Spotlight team – played by Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Brian d’Arcy James – each take on elements on the investigation, trying to get witness and survivor testimonies, unsealing sealed court documents, and trying to persuade attorneys who have some idea of the scale to let them in.

The film isn’t showy in any way. There are no grand-standing performances where characters get overly “emotional.” It’s not even that cinematic. The week before seeing Spotlight, I re-watched All The President’s Men on DVD, and that film has many more flourishes – Deep Throat disappearing into the blackness of an underground carpark; wide shots across a large open plan news floor.

If the Spotlight team’s offices were as they’re presented here, then they were buried away in the building a bit, with just an outer room for the reporters and an office for their editor.

Nonetheless, you begin to feel the heat of the conservative Catholic hierarchy in Boston, with their fingers in most of the political pies. Nobody wants to own up to the extent of the issue, and how much work the church is doing to cover it up.

It’s not a confrontational film. To a large extent the “villain” of the piece is Cardinal Law, the Archbishop of Boston who eventually had to resign his position in covering up the sheer scale of the settlements the church had made. But we don’t meet many of the abusers themselves. One of the few we do seems to be a doddery old fool who doesn’t even seem to acknowledge that “fooling around” was in any way a bad thing. He hadn’t raped them after all! One of the reporters discovers that a building close to his family’s home is where some of these priests have been put out to water – kept out of harm’s way. He simply puts a photo of the house on his fridge door, with a warning to his kids to stay away.

This is a newspaper story, and some of the elements of urgency that we see come from the need to beat the rival paper to seeing documents that should be available to the public. In the aftermath the investigation is temporarily suspended while all hands are on deck reporting on that.

It’s a really fine film from Tom McCarthy, the actor turned director, who also co-wrote the script. Howard Shore’s score is very subtle, and sparsely used. A really good journalism film at a time when newspapers are sadly shutting up shop.

Everest

This film is now out on DVD and download, but I actually saw it in the cinema and then failed to publish my review!

I’d been meaning to see Everest for a few weeks, but there’d been a rush of decent films. I had to see this film however, because it’s a dramatisation of true events from the tragic 1996 ascent, about which much has been written. And I’ve read quite a lot of that material.

Most famously there was Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Krakauer was a participant in this story, attending to write a piece for Outside Edge magazine. There was also The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev, also on the mountain, and written I believe, partly in response to Krakauer’s book which he felt didn’t treat him fairly. Another participant, heavily featured in this film, was Beck Weathers, who also wrote about the events in Left For Dead, although I’ve not actually read this one. And then there’s The Death Zone by Matt Dickinson who was climbing the other route up the North Face that day.

There are no doubt other books beyond this. What is clear is that in the confusion of the key 48 hours, the books don’t all tally up with one another. Krakauer’s is undoubtedly the best book, but this film isn’t based on his work – there was a pretty average TV movie that used his book back in 1997. And we have now learnt that Krakauer doesn’t like his portrayal in this film. Instead this film is based on Weathers’ book and some other sources. It’s an amalgam.

But back to the story. Essentially it begins with Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) of Adventure Consultants. They were one of two commercial expeditions tackling Everest that year, Hall having popularised the commercial expedition model. He has his group including Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), postman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) and writer Krakauer (Michael Kelly). In base camp is the key figure of Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) running things.

The climbers begin their acclimatisation programme, making sorties up the mountain and to neighbouring mountains, with the May 10 date as being the likely ascent date. But it’s also clear that there are an awful lot of people on the mountain that year, and they don’t all see eye to eye as to how they should space themselves out on the mountain. If they all go at the same time, there’ll be pinch points and time will get wasted – the body doesn’t do well at over 8,000m (the “death zone”), and oxygen is cumbersome and limited.

Long reaches an agreement to merge teams with Scott Fischer’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) Mountain Madness team, but it’s clear that not everyone in either party is quite up to the task in hand. There’s a telling scene where another group is having to explain to its climbers how you attach crampons to your boots.

It’s not worth getting into what happens next, but there is an initial weather window, and many of the team get up. But there are issues along the way. Then there are delays and the weather closes in. Climbers are trapped and they’re short of oxygen.

There probably never will be conclusiveness about absolutely everything that happened over those two days, but the film shows confusion very well. This is a film that you need to concentrate on. Sometimes it can take a moment to work out who a particular character is. I think that Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur does a decent job of jumping between characters and trying to explain their relativity to one another. The screenplay by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy also keeps things moving.

The film looks gorgeous. It was filmed partly in Nepal, but also in the Italian Alps and Iceland. But you don’t see the joins and it always feels very real. I would have been happy to sit and watch the impressive aerial mountain photography even more, although that’s what proper IMAX cinemas are for.

Clarke and Watson are particularly good, and even the cameo from Keira Knightley at the end of an international phone line is very moving. Overall, I must say that I was impressed by this film.

What the film doesn’t really do is get into the rights and wrongs of commercial expeditions. Are there too many people on the mountain? I’m not sure that it properly showed the mess that Everest Base Camp is, with old oxygen bottles and kit strewn around. At one point we do see the climbers pass a long dead body, left frozen at the side of the route. That’s something that I find particularly horrifying. Indeed most of the bodies of those who die on Everest remain there, never decaying because of the frozen conditions. Hence the discovery of George Mallory’s body in 1999, 75 years after his death in a 1924 attempt to summit.

And in some ways I was surprised that the captions at the end of the film didn’t mentioning the continuing danger on Everest. For the past two years, the mountain has essentially been closed after tragedy struck. In 2014 16 Nepalese guides were killed on Everest while fixing lines up the mountain. Essentially without those lines being in place, expeditions would take much longer to get up the mountain. Then this year a massive earthquake hit Nepal killing at least 9,000 people and leaving many homeless. At Everest Base Camp this triggered avalanches that killed at least 19 more people. The film-makers are raising money for Nepal however.

Nepal is so impoverished that it relies on the licence fees that climbers have to pay to go onto the mountain. Those expeditions also employ Nepalese and bring much needed money into the country (The recent TV series, Walking The Himalayas noted the reduced number of tourists since the earthquake and the effect that was having on the local economy). On the other hand, those same people are working a very dangerous job. There is a real moral conundrum.

I’m not a real climber. I love the mountains, but will never climb Everest. And if I ever catch myself thinking: “Well if I had the money, I could practically be pulled up the mountain by one of these companies,” I can follow this marvellous advice from Andy Kirkpatrick on Alistair Humphrey’s site.

But I do think the film is better than some have given it credit for. It doesn’t have a perfectly structured narrative, but then real-life doesn’t fit into neat three-act structures.

The Hateful Eight

Like many others, I have something of a love/hate relationship with Quentin Tarantino. Actually it’s more a love/whatever relationship. I admire him enormously as a film-maker, but he does have missteps and I don’t worship the feet he walks on. I’ve not actually yet seen his previous film, Django Unchained!

I say this to put some perspective on this review. I wanted to go and see The Hateful Eight in its 70mm Ultra Panavision print because such things are incredibly rare – around 100 screens globally are getting this version. 1966’s Khartoum was the last film shot in this format, with a super-wide 2.76:1 aspect ratio.

In the UK, I believe that only the Odeon Leicester Square is set-up to show a film in this format, with a capacity of nearly 1700 (this is now nearly 1000 more than the nearby Empire which has been recently sub-divided. Although the BFI IMAX has a bigger screen, the Odeon Leicester Square has by far the largest capacity in the UK. So this is the place to watch a film on this scale. (From reports, it seems that the distributor EFD, fell out with Cineworld and its sibbling the Picturehouse chain, and the Curzon group, over the Odeon getting an exclusive 70mm showing. So they’re not showing the film at all, even when the digital print is made available to all distributors. That seems petty and petulant.)

As well as being a film print, the “roadshow” version we were seeing included an overture of music composed by Ennio Morricone, a twelve minute intermission, and around six minutes’ more footage than the multiplex version. In total then, the runtime of the 70mm print is 187 minutes compared with 167 minutes for the multiplex print.

But what about the film?

Well I thought it was great fun. The camera pans slowly across a snow-covered Wyoming (in fact, it was shot in Colorado), and reveals a stage coach carrying John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) – being brought in for the bounty. They meet Samuel L Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren who has his own dead men he too has collected for the bounty, and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who says he’s the new sheriff of Red Rock – the town they’re all heading towards. The coach is trying to out-run an oncoming blizzard, and the group finds refuge in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a remote outpost where tired travellers can break their journeys, get a meal and get their horses fed and watered.

The film is divided into six chapters, the intermission coming after the first three, and the film ripples with Tarantino’s trademark dialogue. This is a very funny film.

But things begin to go wrong in the Haberdashery, where much of the film’s action takes place, as everyone gets suspicious of everybody else’s motives. Another stage coach has already arrived there, and its occupants are also deeply suspicious.

It does obviously reference Reservoir Dogs where somebody was the informant, and the casting of Tim Roth and Michael Madsen is likely to be very deliberate. Nobody trusts anybody else.

To say much more would be a shame. But it’s a lovely piece that plays out with a cast that loves chewing on the dialogue they’re given. Tim Roth plays an Englishman, Oswaldo Mobray, who’s plummy voice and behaviours leave everyone laughing. Leigh basically growls throughout the whole film, and Goggins is superb, really standing out on the big screen after so much superb work on television.

The film gets quite gruesome at times, but it never takes itself too seriously, and the set is designed in such a way as to make full use of the widescreen frame. There’s nothing new here, and there obvious comparisons with some of Sergio Leone’s work.

We get a flashback sequence, and even a voiceover by Tarantino himself at one point. But I found this all to work well with the structure of the film, and didn’t get pulled out of it.

A number of people have complained about the length, but even though it’s a bit over three hours, I actually didn’t find it too long. Because we got a twelve minute intermission (seat yourself near an exit at the Odeon Leciester Square if you want to make good use of this), it actually really helps. And at a time when people binge multiple episodes of TV shows, three hours isn’t much of a stretch if the film is this good. I recently saw 2001 A Space Odyssey at the NFT, and that too retained Kubrick’s intermission, although in that instance it wasn’t observed and the film continued immediately. I would imagine cinema chains should be happy with the idea too since it gives them another bite of the lucrative concessions “cherry.”

It’s great to hear another Ennio Morricone score on this film. Tarantino still uses cues from other films, as he’s always done, but this is the first time he’s actually had an original composition written for his work, and it’s to be welcomed. Even though he is now 87 he doesn’t really slow down. He has recently scored a French drama released a couple of months ago, and an upcoming Italian film with Jeremy Irons. And he has a series of upcoming arena tour dates around Europe. (I’m very tempted by the O2, but those ticket prices!)

However I should add that I subsequently bought the soundtrack and unlike previous Tarantino soundtracks I don’t think that including sometimes quite long pieces of dialogue amidst the tracks and Morricone’s cues, really works in this instance. I imagine that I’ll be skipping those elements quite a lot during repeat listens.

Returning to the film’s format – most of the films shot previously in Ultra Panavision have been “epics”, but this is undoubtedly a chamber piece. Indeed a clever producer could probably get a good stage play out of this material. Let’s not forget that a live reading was indeed presented for an audience before the film was shot.

But the film is very good, and well worth seeing – especially in a big 70mm print if you have the chance.

The Program

Right at the beginning of The Program, the BBFC certificate popped up. The film is rated 15 for “strong language, use of performing-enhancing drugs.”

Quite. (And I realise, I’m not the first person to note this.)

The Program is Stephen Frears’ new film about Lance Armstrong, the seven-times winner of the Tour de France, before being stripped of those honours when he finally admitted to cheating and taking drugs throughout a large part of his career.

As such, the film is completely on target for me. As I’ve written in the past, I was one of those people who was essentially hoodwinked by Armstrong, and bought the Kool-Aid. Why would someone who nearly died of cancer, come out the other side and take potentially dangerous performance enhancing drugs? And to be clear, there were dangers. EPO – the drug of choice – increased your red blood cell count, and hence provided you with a performance boost, but they also increased the viscosity of your blood, potentially leading to blood clots and the risk of stroke or death.

But what I’d not at the time really understood is how driven Armstrong was. In many respects, sportsmen and women have to be more driven than the rest of us. We might give up, but they’ll continue, because only that way can they reach the top of their game.

I also didn’t really understand quite how nasty Armstrong was. He was ruthless. He understood the cycling omerta – the code of silence that meant that even if you weren’t taking performance enhancing drugs, you didn’t drop anybody else in it.

Frears’ film, based on the book by Sunday Times journalist David Walsh, and written by John Hodge, follows Armstrong’s complete career. And the film tells the story in fairly basic A to B to C steps. That means that an awful lot of story has to be compressed into 103 minutes.

We start with a relatively novice Armstrong showing up in Belgium where the other riders don’t like the cut of the Texan’s jib. Armstrong was already a World Champion, and his fellow cyclists, including Johan Bruyneel (Denis Menochet) plan to leave him for dead, which they then do.

Armstrong (Ben Foster) realises that he needs to talk to the key doctor working in the field Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) and get on “The Program.” Ferrari takes one look at Armstrong’s physique (a curiously CGI’d body attached to Foster’s head) and declares that his power to weight ratio will be all wrong. He’s too big.

Then disaster strikes as Armstrong suffers from cancer. He recovers and slowly gets back on his bike. One entertaining scene shows him being overtaken by a middle-aged lady on a sit-up-and-beg bike in the US.

From there the story follows, to me, familiar path of Armstrong on the road to recovery, now working with Bruyneel, fully adopting drugs, and then proceeding to win the Tour de France seven times in a row.

Set around this story we have the incident with Armstrong admitting to taking drugs in front of teammate Frankie Andreu, and his wife Betsy. And then there’s the introduction of perhaps the oddest of characters, Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons), brought up in a strict Mennonite home, but willing to be Armstrong’s number two. We also see how “Mr Moto” drove around dropping off the drugs to the US Postal Team, and how even a soigneaur like Emma O’Reilly became implicated in the lie.

Set against all this is David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd), initially impressed with the brash American, thinking perhaps he can win one day races, but slowly being amazed as he returns from cancer, stronger than ever and taking on the Tour. As he begins to have suspicions, key scenes are played out including Armstrong and Walsh confronting one another at a press conference.

The film follows right through Armstrong’s return to the Tour in 2009, and ends with his admittance on Oprah, that he did indeed take drugs.

If this whole story is new to you, then I think you might enjoy this film more than me. But if it’s not, then the story is better told in either The Armstrong Lie, or one many books on the subject including Walsh’s own.

The problem is that the story is necessarily involving and complicated, and it’s not something that easy to pare down. And that makes the film a bit lumbering. That’s not to say that they’ve not done a decent job of it, and I prefer this to somehow bringing things together too neatly around a smaller stage. But to be honest, the film did need more focus.

Foster is decent as Armstrong – he looks a lot like him for one thing – although I’m not certain he’s totally captured him. We do get the light and dark of his character – willingness to drop everything to spend time with a kid suffering from cancer through to drawing his finger across his lips to “zip it” (on camera no less!) when a fellow cyclist starts talking to an inquiry. But I think books like Walsh’s or even team-mate Tyler Hamilton’s give a deeper picture of Armstrong’s real character. We don’t quite get that here. He’s clearly a driven character who saw winning as more important than anything, but I’m not quite sure we see the sheer ruthlessness.

The film takes an interesting perspective on presenting the actual cycling sequences with a combination of re-staged action and archive footage, including the full Phil and Paul commentaries. It sort of works, and at the same time doesn’t.

There’s a problem just about every sports film I’ve ever seen has – and that’s the fact that the film camera takes you places that the TV camera can never take you. So it just feels odd, because sport is something we’re all very familiar with from its televising. And that’s a bit of a problem in cycling because cameras on the back of “Motos” can take you pretty close. I’m surprised that more films don’t instead recreate a TV experience, adopting the same camera angles and talking the language of sports TV coverage rather than the language of cinema. The problem often there is that they’re desperately trying to avoid showing the lack of thousands of extras in the crowd, by cropping closely. That’s the case here too. We get some great alpine climbs, but it’s all too clear that the budget has not extended to the vast crowds you’d get on such race stages. Indeed it sometimes looks as though we’re watching a rural little cycling event somewhere.

The producers have done very well technically, getting the right jerseys at various points in Armstrong’s career. While what his team is called is hardly important in the scheme of things, you know that they’ve put enough attention to detail to get those things right. But in the end I’m left wondering whether they shouldn’t have just stuck with the archive footage.

Overall it’s certainly not a bad film, but it feels just a little bit average. I think sports films are a hard genre to pull off, and despite the significant milestones in Armstrong’s life, it all feels a little undercooked. I think in the end, you’d be better off seeing The Armstrong Lie if you only had to choose one film. Not a failure, but not great.

The Martian and Sicario

There seems to be a spate of pretty decent films coming all of a sudden at the moment, so after a bit of a barren period when endless super-hero films haven’t inspired me to go to the cinema, I’m suddenly going a little more.

The Martian is Ridley Scott’s new film, based on the book by Andy Weir. I must confess that although I’d heard many good things about the book, even buying a copy when it first came out, I’d not quite ever got around to reading it. That was until the bus-sides for the film started appearing and I decided I should give it a go before the film arrived.

That was no hardship since it’s a terrific page-turner. Mark Watney is part of the crew of Ares III, a NASA mission to Mars. The crew are supposed to spend about a month on the surface, but a sudden storm means that they have to leave in a hurry, and an accident during that departure means that Watney is seemingly dead and they have to leave him behind.

But he’s not dead. And now he’s alone on Mars with limited supplies and the need to survive perhaps four years before the next planned mission is due to arrive at the planet.

To say that the book is full of science is to do it a disservice. The book is all about science. Basically Watney’s survival is going to require him to solve problems and use the limited resources he has at his disposal. In the novel, the scientific background to generating water or planting potatoes is explained in quite some detail. You feel as though you could survive on Mars with, perhaps an illustrated copy of the book.

The film necessarily simplifies things. We understand that it’s science that Watney is working with to hack together tools and materials, but we’re not worried too much by the detail. In the novel, when Watney starts fitting out his rover, this is quite a detailed undertaking. The film simplifies this.

But that’s not to do the film any disservice. It’s a pacy, at times funny, and others nail-biting tail. Many have commented on the fact that there are no real bad guys in this film. NASA must love it because it paints them as having a real can-do attitude. They managed to announce more proof of the presence of water in the run-up to the film’s release, which I’m sure was just a coincidence. More than once you recall that scene from Apollo 13 when a filter problem is solved by a roomful of scientists and box containing all the materials the astronauts have. (In the novel, there’s a reference to that in that Watney says that all fixings have been standardised since Apollo 13.)

Like the book, the film flicks between earth and Mars, where NASA belatedly realises that Watney is alive and have to set about building communications with him and coming up with a plan to rescue him. I thought that this was really well handled, and the earth-bound actors are all excellent including Jeff Daniels, Kirsten Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean.

Meanwhile there is the “guilt” of the crew to deal with Jessica Chastain in Watney’s commander. But the film also has a great deal of humour. Watney isn’t sitting around feeling sorry for himself – he’s solving problems, watching Happy Days re-runs and listening to a diet of 70s disco music, because that’s what his fellow crewmates brought with them as digital files.

In terms of tension, I must admit that I was more on edge with the book than the film – but that was because I genuinely didn’t know how the story was going to end, whereas by the time I saw the film, I did know how at least the book ended.

As an aside, I saw The Martian in 3D, and it really wasn’t worth it. I don’t believe that it was actually shot in 3D, and it added nothing to the experience.

The film, however, is very much worth seeing and is Scott’s best film in ages. It looks great, and the story moves along nicely.

Sicario, we are told near the beginning of the film, means a hitman, particularly in Mexico and Latin America. Exactly why it’s called that is not explained. But this is a film that only reveals itself slowly.

Emily Blunt plays an FBI agent who we see at the start taking place in the first of a number of fantastic set-pieces. She’s part of a big operation, raiding a house in Arizona where they believe hostages are being held. The FBI team actually drive what is effectively a tank through a wall of the house, and once they’ve secured the site, they make a horrifying discovery.

The story moves on and Blunt is signed up to a multi-agency taskforce that seems to be targeting some Mexican druglords. But there are a couple of interesting characters who seem to be leading this. Quite who they are, and which agency they work for is never entirely clear. But all of sudden they’re part of an operation to transfer a prisoner from a Mexican court back across the US border.

The sequence that sees this happen is superbly handled. The ominous tones of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s outstanding score; the long aerial shots, often looking down vertically; the thumping sound of helicopters monitoring the operation; and then all of sudden we’re on the back of an armed Federal police vehicle being driven at speed as part of a convey through the mean streets of Ciudad Juárez.

Exactly what is going on is never quite explained. How does this all link together?

Slowly things become clear, and a bigger operation is revealed. This task force seems to have permission from the very top. Josh Brolin’s character could be CIA, but if he was, he shouldn’t be carrying out operations on US territory. And who on earth is Benicio del Toro’s character? He seems dangerous.

There follow another two outstanding sequences and everything is ramped up, and slowly the picture reveals itself.

What’s great about Sicario is that you never quite know what’s happening. Like Blunt’s character, you’re drawn along for the ride. She want’s to do something to curb the gang warfare, but is this it?

I don’t think I’ve seen anything previously made by director Denis Villeneuve, but he loves holding a scene. There aren’t fast cuts – scenes just play out. And Roger Deakins’ cinematography is to die for. The aerial shots are outstanding, and whether it’s helicopters showing the border fence, the camera revealing the city of Ciudad Juárez, or in one amazing shot, seeing a group of soldiers silhouetted against the setting sun, this film looks gorgeous. I could bask in this film.

Blunt, Brolin and del Toro are all superb, as is the rest of the cast including Daniel Kaluuya as Blunt’s partner who’s even less in the picture than she is, and Victor Garber as Blunt’s boss. We also get a bit of a picture from the other side of the fence as Maximiliano Hernández’s flawed policeman’s life is revealed to us in short scenes.

A fascinating film that deserves lots of attention.